Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pas-de-Deux with a Semi-Fictional Nureyev

Review: Dancer by Colum McCann


Rudolf Nureyev. The name is synonymous with ballet. 


But before the multiple entrechats, before the defection to the West, before the notable evenings in Paris and New York, there was a confused little boy who wanted two things from life: to dance, and to find approval.

McCann's Dancer is a loose grouping of snapshots, scattered in time and location, that serve as well as anything can to illuminate the tempestuous life of the dancer Nureyev, the little boy Rudik, the homosexual Rudi. 

In this arrangement, the author agrees with the opening quote:
In any case, when talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw. —William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

We see the child, slight and shivering, dancing to entertain shell-shocked soldiers returning to a hospital from the Western front. Rudik barely knows his returning father, and is repelled by the fish his father expects him to gut. The boy who dreamed of his father until he met him again, now only dreams of a stage with a red velvet curtain. 


What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris (1961):

  • ten one-hundred franc bills held together with an elastic band
  • a packet of Russian tea...
  • white lilies... perfectly weighted to reach the stage...
  • sixteen pairs of women's underwear, a phenomenon that had never been seen in the theatre before...
  • broken glass thrown by Communist protesters...
  • death threats
  • hotel keys
  • and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.

Rudolf Nureyev defected while in Paris that year—not for political reasons, but because he had discovered the active homosexual life of 1960s Paris, and rejected the warnings of the commissar charged with watching the ballet dancers. He was sentenced to seven years' hard labor if he should ever return to the USSR. But Rudi was having too much fun, and it would be decades before he would consider a return to his motherland.

Watched All in the Family then cabbed to Judy and Sam Peabody's to see Nureyev (cab $2.50). Nureyev arrived and he looked terrible—really old-looking. I guess the nightlife finally got to him. His masseur was with him. The masseur is also sort of a bodyguard... —the Andy Warhol diaries, Sunday, March 11, 1979.

The book is neatly divided into four parts, like separate boxes of photos in a trunk. Book four brings Rudolf Nureyev back to Russia in the time of detente. "How come they let you back?" his life-long friend asks, and Rudi replies simply, "Raisa Gorbachev."
And are you still dancing? I asked.
They will put me down dancing, he said.
I couldn't help but believe him—one day they would exhume Rudi and find his bones set in an attitude of leap...

The snap-shot mode is difficult to parse at first, like a neophyte's understanding of ballet. But in the end, it is perfect for this tale, perfect for the dance we are invited to join.